The time is 4 a.m., and in the kitchen, it’s finally quiet enough to hear the hum of the refrigerators. During some of these 4 a.m.s, I am not alone. A nearby door is open, and at least one floor mate, usually Kevin, is visible in his room, also buried in a pile of papers. The floor mates are rocking back and forth on chairs. They’re rifling through mounds of papers, allowing me glimpses of equations and free-body diagrams and the occasional doodle. I distract myself for a minute with Facebook messages or memes, well aware that each second of distraction pushes off the task that lies ahead—the task that separates me from the warmth of my bed.
Problem sets are untamed beasts, shifty and unpredictable. Sometimes they’re a few pages long, promising rest if you engage them for a quick five hours. Sometimes they’re only a few paragraphs yet ensnare you in their grip for days on end.
Tonight, it’s a problem from 6.046, the Design and Analysis of Algorithms. I’m supposed to devise an efficient probabilistic algorithm for sorting a large list of numbers given a broken two-number comparator. I will discard pages filled with half-starts and untidy dead ends, swear words scrawled into margins, before the final flash of insight will lead me, in that familiar mix of weariness and elation, to populate two pages with logic I hope is sound. I finish at 7 a.m.
Many students at MIT find that problem sets dominate our weeks. For a lot of us, they define sleep patterns. In good weeks, problem sets are valiantly conquered in a matter of hours, and I can indulge in seven to nine hours of sleep. In regular weeks, problem sets prove unyielding. I get an early start on a weekday evening. Seven hours, I tell myself. I can be done at 1 a.m., relax for an hour, and doze off at 2. But as I start, the pages open up and I’m plunged headfirst into a world of numbers, intricate puzzles, closed doors with hidden keys. Seven hours give way to 12 ... or maybe 16 ... and I can’t quite give up yet. And once this p-set is slain and stowed away, there are two more waiting, teeth bared, to take its place. I prefer to leave no problem unturned, and therefore I’m bound, captive to the pages until satisfactory progress is made.
Sometimes the results are hilarious, in all the wrong ways. As a freshman, I pulled an all-nighter to complete an 18.02 p-set, only to pass out in exhaustion and wake up two hours after it was due. And once, I confess, I threw in the towel without attempting a single problem. My sophomore year, one of my Course 6 classes dropped the problem set with the lowest grade. I took one cursory look at the last one and decided my time was better spent on other work—and a shameful amount of Netflix.
There are always shameful amounts of Netflix. Or YouTube. The brain decides that enough is enough yet is not quite ready to call it a night. For a half-hour, an hour, two, it refuses to engage in the madness of numbers, and so I turn to more enchanting pastimes. I watch kittens meow nonchalantly and contemplate buying a dozen. I browse subreddits. I window-shop on Amazon for items I will never purchase, and when the glorious escape turns into nagging guilt, I close 50 extraneous windows and return to the task at hand. I need to finish this problem set. And I need to sleep.
Typically I’ve chosen afternoon classes, which lets me go to bed at 7 a.m. and still get five to eight hours of sleep. Sometimes the problem set persists, and I look outside the window to streaming, shocking sunlight and the realization that I can only crawl under the covers for three hours.
Sometimes I wish it were over—this mental block, this problem set, this week. I contemplate an alternative life in which I sell sandwiches and go fishing on weekends. Other times I’m learning, growing, expanding, stretched to tautness like rubber. And I’m loving it.
Most times it’s 4 a.m., I’m awake, and so is Kevin, his door slightly open. Most times, we’re both thinking of our warm beds, lying in wait and purring our names at the end of work a few minutes or hours or days away from completion. Most times, it’s a challenge. And most times, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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